The fair city of Seattle recently abolished Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It is tempting, then to embark on an impassioned polemic about how Columbus was either a monster to be reviled or bemoan the continual attacks on our traditions from those ornery and persistently unassimilated minorities. As much fun as that sort of moral masturbation is, I’d like to tread a slightly different path. That is, was the figure of Christopher Columbus unique or, more fundamentally, was he even significant?
When we look at the historical man, we need to appreciate that Columbus was indeed pretty nasty in his dealings with the natives. He supervised systemized rape campaigns, murdered willy-nilly and enslaved like some unholy hybrid of Jefferson Davis and Caligula. It only gets worse when we consider the specifics of these outrages. There are stories involving literally barbequing human beings, for exmple. If that’s not a 9.995 on the bastard scale, I don’t know what is.
Or is it that cut and dried? How much of the moral condemnation we point at Columbus a reflection of the fact that we, safely ensconced in the 21st century, do not stand to profit by murdering Native Americans and taking their things? If you believe that we moderns differ from our ancestors only in the sense of culture, if you don’t think we have somehow genetically evolved better morals in the last 500 years (evolutionarily a blink of the eye), then there’s a simple test we can apply. Have there ever been situations analogous to North America’s discovery that did not end in mass outrages at the expense of the Native American analogs? What would a Native American analog look like?
The first thing I’d suggest is to look at the relative power of the groups. Columbus had guns, the Taino (Cuban natives) had weapons made from stone and bone. Columbus had galleons, the Taino had dugout canoes. Columbus had access to the collected, written wisdom of hundreds of civilizations and thousands of years, the Taino had village elders. Columbus’ backers sent him forth with the things learned from the Arab Golden age – an unmatched fountain of mathematics and medicine, the Romans – the greatest empire builders in history, and the Mongol Hordes – the greatest military power the earth had seen to that point. The natives countered with illiteracy and a lifestyle just sedentary enough to make them easy targets. If the Portugese were a mixture of Ghengis Khan, Julius Caesar and Saladin, the Taino were Teletubbies.
The second thing I’d suggest in our search for analogs is the value of the weaker party’s land. In the case of the Taino, the land was unfortunately very valuable. Gold, at first, then tobacco and sugar and slaves. If the Native Americans had been luckier, if their land had sucked a little big more, they could have perhaps hoped for an existence like that enjoyed (possibly enjoyed?) by the Sentinel Islanders or Deep Amazonian tribes.
So relative weakness and valuable land – is it possible to survive this combination? As far as I can tell, no. It wasn’t fun to be an Ainu when the modern Japanese showed up. Being a Hottentot during the time of the Zulu meant slavery was the high end of your possible life outcomes. Being a Bushman in the land of Hottentots meant you were literally hunted for sport. Being a Lapp when the Scandinavians showed up had outcomes ranging from slaughter to concentration camps. Mass rape and only killing the males was a good outcome, comparatively, when the Mongols met the medieval Slavs. The Mauri would straight up eat you. Belgians treated Congolese a lot like cattle, except that you wouldn’t intentionally cripple a cow. Meeting the Aztecs as a hunter gatherer usually ended with a trip to the top of a blood stained pyramid and it’s difficult to imagine a fate worse than that met by the Australian aborigines.
But surely it can be better. A morally righteous discoverer would take these weaker people under his arm and protect them. He would recognize that his greater strength comes from his luck and treat the aborigines with respect and brotherhood. He would not be tempted by the riches or the ease with which those riches could be stolen. He would recognize the humanity of these walking bullseyes and treat them as equals, right? Even if such a person existed, I know of literally zero instances of a weak civilization with resources meeting a strong civilization and escaping obliteration. Perhaps this hypothetical good Columbus could convince his poor, uneducated and ambitious crewmen not to ransack and, doing so, make themselves minor nobles. Perhaps he would not face mutiny for leaving gold behind on the beaches. Perhaps he could be that inspirational, but how could even this Jesus-figure prevent the kings and queens back home from sending a normal human being next time?
The conclusion here, if you accept my premises, is that the Native Americans were doomed in direct proportion to their weakness. If they were the Taino and wholly unable to fight back, that meant wholesale destruction. If they were the Sioux and capable of continued nuisance, it meant oppression short of obliteration. If they were a civilization like Inca, it meant a much gentler process. Not because the Inca were morally better (which is irrelevant), but because they had a much greater capacity to retaliate. If they were the Aztec or Tlaxcalans and really capable of retaliating, it meant becoming nominally Catholic and settling in as the mayors and aldermen of a preferable political order under token Spanish governance.
None of this is to imply that Columbus was a good guy, it’s to go several steps further and say it doesn’t matter if he was good or bad. Or in other words, we should change the old saying “the wages of sin are death.” It seems to me the wages of weakness are death.
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